Lawmakers and Financial Experts Question Obama's Tax Cuts

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009; 12:58 PM

At least two tax cuts that are part of Barack Obama's stimulus package have been criticized by lawmakers, tax experts and economists for being potentially too expensive and ineffective, signaling that they are likely to face resistance on Capitol Hill as congressional leaders begin direct negotiations with the president-elect's team.

Both Democrats and Republicans have questioned a provision that would provide a $3,000 tax credit to companies for every job created and, possibly, for every job spared. They contend that the idea would be ripe for abuse and difficult to administer.

"I'm not that excited about that," said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), as he left the first bipartisan Senate Finance Committee meeting this morning. A parade of lawmakers echoed the sentiment as they departed. "A lot of questions have been raised about the economic good it does," said Sen. Charles Grassley (Iowa), the senior Republican on the panel.

Lawmakers are also skeptical about a measure that would allow companies to deduct large portions of recent losses. The proposal would benefit companies that have been hit hardest by the recession, including in the banking and real estate sectors, but experts worry that costs could soar because so many would be eligible.

Another Obama provision, a $500 credit for middle-class taxpayers, may face significant revisions, if it survives the final cut. Obama has proposed distributing the benefit over the course of a year, to increase prospects that the money will be spent. Lawmakers are considering condensing the benefit, possibly over a three-month period.

Despite the concerns, as well as growing unease from Republicans about the size of the package after the Congressional Budget Office's latest projection of a $1.2 trillion deficit for the current fiscal year, congressional leaders said they are moving swiftly to produce a big, bold bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) vowed that a stimulus package would be passed by Congress before it takes a 10-day break on Feb. 13, or "there won't be a recess."

Obama urged Congress to move quickly this morning in a speech at George Mason University, while former Treasury secretary Lawrence H. Summers, who will be Obama's most senior White House economic adviser, is scheduled to brief Senate Democrats in the afternoon on its outlines. This morning's Senate Finance session represented the panel's first formal meeting on the emerging stimulus package. Grassley said afterwards the panel could take two weeks to produce a bill.

In the House, Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee have scheduled three sessions -- today, Friday and Tuesday -- with Obama economic aides to begin drafting the tax portions of the bill.

Democratic congressional leaders said they welcome Obama's input but made clear that they will have their own priorities. "Senators are senators," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.) told reporters after a Democratic caucus meeting yesterday. "They've got ideas, too."

Baucus's preference is to invest a bigger share of the roughly $775 billion package in domestic energy programs. But, he added, Senate Democrats and the president-elect are "in general agreement" on what should be in the bill.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.) was less committal, describing the five tax proposals Obama outlined this week as guidelines aimed at reaching general goals, such as job creation and relief for middle-class workers. House tax writers "may have a little more experience technically" on what incentives might best achieve those objectives, Rangel cautioned. "Don't get tied up in how we do it."

Obama promoted the corporate tax credit on the campaign trail as a way to keep workers in their jobs, but many experts dismissed it when it resurfaced this week as one of his five tax priorities.

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